Do We Still Need "Oriental Adventures"?

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Orientalism -- a wide-ranging term originally used to encompass depictions of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian cultures -- has gradually come to represent a more negative term. Should Dungeons & Dragons, known for two well-received books titled "Oriental Adventures," have another edition dedicated to "Eastern" cultures?

[h=3]A Brief History of Orientalism[/h]For a time, orientalism was a term used by art historians and literary scholars to group "Eastern" cultures together. That changed in 1978 with Edward Said's Orientalism, which argued that treatment of these cultures conflated peoples, times, and places into a narrative of incident and adventure in an exotic land.

It's easy to see why this approach might appeal to role-playing games. Orientalism is one lens to view a non-European culture within the game's context. We previously discussed how "othering" can create a mishmash of cultures, and it can apply to orientalism as well. The challenge is in how to portray a culture with nuance, and often one large region isn't enough to do the topic justice. The concept even applies to the idea of the "East" and the "Orient," which turns all of the Asian regions into one mono-culture. Wikipedia explains the term in that context:

The imperial conquest of "non–white" countries was intellectually justified with the fetishization of the Eastern world, which was effected with cultural generalizations that divided the peoples of the world into the artificial, binary-relationship of "The Eastern World and The Western World", the dichotomy which identified, designated, and subordinated the peoples of the Orient as the Other—as the non–European Self.


Game designers -- who were often admitted fans of Asian cultures -- sought to introduce a new kind of fantasy into traditional Western tropes. Viewed through a modern lens, their approach would likely be different today.
[h=3]The "Oriental" Books in D&D[/h]The original Oriental Adventures was published in 1985 by co-creator of D&D Gary Gygax, David "Zeb" Cook and François Marcela-Froideval. It introduced the ninja, kensai, wu-jen, and shukenja as well as new takes on the barbarian and monk. It was also the first supplement to introduce non-weapn proficiencies, the precursor to D&D's skill system. The book was well-received, and was envisioned by Gygax as an opportunity to reinvigorate the line -- ambitions which collapsed when he left the company. The book's hardcover had the following text printed on the back:

…The mysterious and exotic Orient, land of spices and warlords, has at last opened her gates to the West.


Aaron Trammell provides a detailed analysis of how problematic this one line of text is. The sum of his argument:

Although Gary Gygax envisioned a campaign setting that brought a multicultural dimension to Dungeons & Dragons, the reality is that by lumping together Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Philippine, and “Southeast Asian” lore he and co-authors David “Zeb” Cook and Francois Marcela-Froideval actually developed a campaign setting that reinforced western culture’s already racist understanding of the “Orient.”


The next edition would shift the setting from Kara-Tur (which was later sent in the Forgotten Realms) to Rokugan from the Legend of the Five Rings role-playing game.
[h=3]Controversy of the Five Rings[/h]James Wyatt wrote the revised Oriental Adventures for Third Edition D&D, published by Wizards of the Coast in 2001. It was updated to 3.5 in Dragon Magazine #318.

Legend of the Five Rings, a franchise that extends to card games, is itself not immune to controversy. Quintin Smith got enough comments on his review of the Legend of the Five Rings card game that he included an appendix that looked critically at chanting phrases "banzai!" at conventions and some of the game's art:

Now, I have no idea if this is right or wrong, but I do know that chanting in Japanese at an event exclusively attended by white men and women made me feel a tiny bit weird. My usual headcheck for this is “How would I feel if I brought a Japanese-English friend to the event?” and my answer is “Even more weird.” Personally, I found the game’s cover art to be a little more questionable. I think it’s fantastic to have a fantasy world that draws on Asian conventions instead of Western ones. But in a game that almost exclusively depicts Asian men and women, don’t then put white people on the cover! It’s such a lovely piece of art. I just wish she looked a little bit less like a cosplayer.


Perhaps in response to this criticism, Fantasy Flight Games removed the "banzai" chant as a bullet point from its web site. The page also features several pictures of past tournament winners, which provides some context as to who was shouting the chant.
[h=3]Fifth Edition and Diversity[/h]By the time the Fifth Edition of D&D was published, the game's approach to diverse peoples had changed. Indigo Boock on GeekGirlCon explains how:

Diversity is strength. The strongest adventuring party is the most diverse adventuring party. Try thinking about it in terms of classes—you have your healers, fighters, and magic users. Same goes for diversity. Different outlooks on life create more mobility and openness for different situations. Jeremy also explained that it was crucial that the art also reflected diversity, as did Art Director Kate Erwin. With this, they tried to make sure that there was a 50/50 split of people who identify as male and people who identify as female in the illustrations.


Trammell points out how these changes are reflected in the art of the core rule books:

First, there are illustrations: an East Asian warlock, a female samurai, an Arabian princess, an Arab warrior, and a Moor in battle, to name a few. Then, there are mechanics: the Monk persists as a class replete with a spiritual connection to another world via the “ki” mechanic. Scimitars and blowguns are commonly available as weapons, and elephants are available for purchase as mounts for only 200 gold. Although all of these mechanics are presented with an earnest multiculturalist ethic of appreciation, this ethic often surreptitiously produces a problematic and fictitious exotic, Oriental figure. At this point, given the embrace of multiculturalism by the franchise, it seems that the system is designed to embrace the construction of Orientalist fictional worlds where the Orient and Occident mix, mingle, and wage war.


A good first step is to understand the nuances of a region by exploring more than one culture there. Sean "S.M." Hill's "The Journey to..." series is a great place to start, particularly "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

D&D has come a long way, but it still has some work to do if it plans to reflect the diversity of its modern player base and their cultures...which is why it seems unlikely we'll get another Oriental Adventures title.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Imagine if for a moment we all agree that the Oriental Adventures book should go the way of the dodo. Now imagine an elaborate campaign setting based entirely on Korean folklore, mythology and focused through a mytho-historical lens. Or imagine a fantasy setting that is based entirely on contemporary Chinese interests in how to interpret the fantastical (which is often centered on historical recreation with an emphasis on the reality of the mythic elements).

We have a lot of range here to create highly nuanced and very focused settings that draw from very specific cultures and histories. I think everyone would benefit from this.

For my taste, I probably wouldnt get an entire campaign setting set in Korea.

But if more like the Disney Epcot Center?

If D&D 5e came out with a *city* and its surrounding region, that looked authentically like a Korean city and a rural farming community in Korea, I would love that.

Even if it didnt say ‘Korea’, but was a rich cultural vignette, I would find it playable.

So, I guess, I find a local setting best to represent a culture, rather than a global setting.



In some ways, D&D 5e is off to a good start. Sword Coast is a regional setting. Tho I would probably want a local setting that was even narrower. (More like 1e City of Greyhawk as a local setting, a specific place, or 4e Menzoberranzan as a specific local setting of Drow.)

In other ways, D&D 5e is off to a bad start, because its polytheistic gods are objectively true, are everywhere in the entire world (even potentially everywhere in the entire multiverse), and suffocate the possibility of presenting other cultures with completely different worldviews.
 

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Yaarel

Mind Mage
I do not think that is how it works. Polytheism is part of D&D. Same as devils/demons. TSR tried to remove/rename devils/demons and there was not a huge increase in players to warrant such an action. This is just like violent video games, if you do not like the violence, there are *other* video games that do not have it, I do not like or play Medal of Honor but I would never ask the publisher to tone down the violence, to each their own.

Ok. But then WotC cant pretend to care about what Muslims think.

If anyone cares about Muslim cultures, make it easy to opt out of polytheism.



There are MANY reasons to make *spiritual diversity* with different cosmologies from different cultures, a D&D thing.
 

neobolts

Explorer
If WotC wants to see Muslims playing D&D, then it must be easy to opt out of polytheism.

Everything is optional. That's the beauty of RPGs.

Also, I don't think catering fictional settings to real world religious demands is viable or good for the brand. More fundamental branches of any faith are going to find any fictional depictions of gods, monsters, and spells threatening. Every faith has their Jack Chicks and we shouldn't pay them any mind.
 

neobolts

Explorer
My own long running homebrew setting has its own "oriental" region with nations inspired by Thailand (muay Thai martial arts and sacred elephants), Mongolia (Genghis Khan), China (Three Kingdoms era, Wuxia), and Japan (ninja mythology, classic Japanese yokai, Warring States era shogun/samurai).

I think a lot of what is lost on the naysayers in the thread is that western RPG authors are not selfishly grabbing history and perverting it somehow, we are drawing from well traveled pop culture touchstones that are not handled with any sort of consistent reverence within the cultures themselves.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Yes, an Oriental Adventures would be nice. Let's leave PC out of gaming as it has already ruined enough things in life.
 

Thanks to globalization, we can buy Asian style RPGs from Asians themselves.

Tenra Bansho Zero does to Japanese myth what D&D does to European myth
http://tenra-rpg.com/
Golden Sky Stories is from Japan and there's a Kickstarter happening for it RIGHT NOW!!! for spalt though
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nekoewen/golden-sky-stories-twilight-tales?ref=profile_created
The Maid RPG also exists! It's the first RPG ever to be translated from Japanese to English!
http://maidrpg.com/
There's also Double Cross, which is made by Japanese people but isn't about ninjas and stuff like that...
http://ver-blue-amusement.com/index.html
 

Plageman

Explorer
The 2001 OA was 'bad' in the sense that it really was trying too hard to push the rokugan setting that WotC had recently acquired instead of offering just mechanisms to add more character options in the game.

The main issue we have here is that D&D books are mostly written and published by North American authors who have been influenced by decades of pulp and post WW2 fiction works. Just look at appendix N and you will understand the reason of why we are here now.

Again it's not an issue but some legacy DNA of the hobby. If you're offended by OA content just look at Shadowrun's depiction of the Japanese or European countries. And what to say of Pinnacle's Deadlands who used stereotypical Asian and native Americans ?

So do we need another OA on 5E ? No because WotC has demonstrated that with this edition they moved away from that type of products. Maybe we'll get a Sword Coast guide equivalent or a Tomb of Annihilation type campaign focused on some aspect of it. And that would be enough for the official publisher.

Now the market had changed enough with PDF, POD and Kickstarter to allow those who want to offer a different type of 'asian' setting to sell it. Just don't expect that WotC team will do it.
 


Jhaelen

First Post
At the time I rather liked 'Oriental Adventures'. It was a fresh take on standard fantasy settings. To be honest I never cared if it was an accurate portrayal of asian culture and myth or not. This is still D&D after all!
I liked the system based on honor better than the standard alignment system. I also felt that the concept of spirits was more interesting than standard D&D's 'ghosts'.
But there were also aspects I didn't like:
I wasn't all that fond of the Wu-Jen with its new way of aligning spells with the five elements. I also felt that the Oriental dragons were too odd to make good monsters.

When third edition arrived, though, I already failed to see the appeal of the Oriental classes. They felt no longer fresh, but artificial. They didn't really fit in with the rest of the classes and often were mechanically weak.

Today, I don't see any reason why we would need any of this. For me, it's sufficient to re-theme existing classes, spells, and monsters, if you want to give them an oriental flair. There's no need for new mechanics, at all. Just like alignments, honor is best modeled as a set of personality traits. It's little different from the Paladin's codex, anyway. And that doesn't have any rules system attached, either.
 

Hussar

Legend
My personal beef with Oriental adventures stems from the mish mash. Hang on, let me explain.

Yes, D&D mashes together all sorts of European cultural concepts. Absolutely. But, it does so in in a very broad way. Fighters aren't Frankish Knights or Jannisaries, they are all of those things. You can take the fighter class and make pretty much whatever you like. You want your character to be inspired by Roman legionnaires? Cool, no problem. Pick the right equipment, take a Fighter class and off you go. Every culture in Europe had "fighters".

But, let's look at OA. We don't get knights, we get Samurai. But, samurai aren't a broad concept that apply to all cultures. They were a very distinct cultural artifact from one specific culture - namely the Japanese. Here's a quote from the 3e OA book:

3e Oriental Adventures Page 20 said:
Samurai learn their combat techniques and the principles of bushido... Samurai consider themselves the pinnacle of the Celestial Order

What? The Chinese and Koreans and all the other cultures don't have anything equivalent to knights? We have to tie the knight class to one specific culture and force that culture on the entire setting? Never minding Sohei or Kensai or Yakuza. Seriously? The Katana is a better sword than anything anyone else can make?

And there's my problem. It's not that it's a mish mash of cultures. That's groovy. But, it's pretty obviously placing certain cultures on the top of the heap. We don't call Paladins, Knights Templar for a very good reason. It's too restricting.

Oriental Adventures might as well be called Japanese Adventures with a bit of all these other cultures tacked on for window dressing.

To me, that's the disrespectful part of OA. Unlike baseline D&D which, really, doesn't try to present any one culture as better than another, OA pretty much ignores anything south of Hong Kong and laser beam focuses on Japan.
 

Lylandra

Adventurer
But there were also aspects I didn't like:
I wasn't all that fond of the Wu-Jen with its new way of aligning spells with the five elements. I also felt that the Oriental dragons were too odd to make good monsters.

When third edition arrived, though, I already failed to see the appeal of the Oriental classes. They felt no longer fresh, but artificial. They didn't really fit in with the rest of the classes and often were mechanically weak.

I've been trying to wrap my head around the OA for quite a while and I believe it is at least partly a varint of your statement. I've never been too fond of D&Ds Oriental Adventures, even when I was younger and didn't see the problematic aspects of orientalism in it. It just didn't feel right to me, despite having been a western otaku in my teen days and being generally interested in foreign cultures and myths.

Now I think it might be because D&D was, in its very core, designed as a pseudo-medieval european fantasy system. I don't think that D&D (at least earlier versions) and its ruleset are as generic as some people would claim. Your example with the Wu-Jen and spells is a good example. Asian myths use wholly different spells and examples of magic than western myths. So in order to "get it right", such a book or setting would need its own magic, its own creatures, its own myths which would be a mixture of actual myths, traditional fantasy plus additional filler that nevertheless fits the themes.

And you'd need to be brave enough to cut away "western" classes. If there is no analogue for a druid or a paladin then cut them and replace them with something equivalent, but not too similar.

Also, honor. Ugh. As someone mentioned earlier, generally speaking, there would be no reason at all to implement a honor system in OA, but not a medieval ruleset. Just because the concept of honor isn't too relevant in western societies today it doesn't mean that medieval nobles didn't care for it. I also wouldn't confuse honor with alignment or any intrinsic statistic. It isn't universal either. Honor is granted (extrinsically), which makes it dependent on who you're interacting with. It is also something that can be felt (intrinsically), but this is more relevant for your own characteristic, belief and behavior, not for how others see you.
It it were me, I'd scrap the concept alltogether.

Earlier in this thread someone said that the Avatar show is based on various asian cultures and doesn't get Flak for orientalism while being highly popular and I agree. But this is because 1) these guys did their research and combined existing cultural techniques with their own fantasy and 2) There is no othering in this world, because there are no "western" people who represent "our" culture in this setting at all.
 

Igwilly

First Post
Yeah, thing is:
1) Paladins were loosely based on the legends (myths) of the 12 Paladins of Charlemagne (a Christian emperor) and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round, also Christian legends. And why shall I not say, Catholic legends? It has been a time since I had an History class...
2) Clerics were explicitly based on medieval Christian knighthoods like the Templars and the Hospitalers. And quite frankly, they still are much better as warrior priests of a "Crystal Dragon Jesus" (it's a trope) religion than being true priests of anything else.
3) Druids are loosely based on the scarce information we have on Celtic druids, on neo-paganism movements and our own imagination. Nothing else. They are still pretty much the "other" priest.
4) Some of these creatures vary a lot between religions, but we all know where we got our devils, demons, and angels.
5) And the Bard... originally a Celtic based class, it has pretty much engolfed every single musician out there under its shadow, while still being a "magic musician" more than anything else.
6) The Monk... pretty much every known RPG draws the monk from the specific lineage of the Shaolin temple, while ignoring every other monk in existence. And they still are different from their supposed inspiration.
7) The Barbarian. A nice short way of grouping every "primitive" culture into one pot, while giving them Rage abilities and calling them "Barbarian", which usually has a negative tone. Still pretty much the "other".
8) The popular concept about the Samurai and the Ninja have extended beyond their original, historical functions. The very Japanese people do this! And give them ki-based powers, even though Qi is from China.
9) The concept of a distant land with an exotic people is an idea far too deep in your minds to just get rid of it. "Exotic" here has never meant "inferior" or "evil", just a plain different culture. And the cultures in question are different, but that's ok: everyone is still human, after all; same dignity.
And we have the Sha'ir, Theurge, the *Wizard*...

The point is, there's nothing wrong in adapting stuff to fit into a classic Fantasy Kitchen Sink, that has very different needs from a solely asian/wuxia-based setting.
I speak all of that as someone who LOVES fantasy material close from real-world mythos instead of just making up everything. Yet, this is my *taste*. In no way I imply it to be morally superior. The problem is, when you tie in such delirious stuff to real-world problems such as racism, you kinda are bringing this to table and saying "this is morally wrong to do". People will react to this.

So, Ok. The original OA had far too many Japanese classes then from other cultures. But that's just a design mistake; if that is the problem, we could fix it. Also, we did get to see more China with Foo creatures, the Celestial Bureaucracy and stuff.
And the honor stuff? They had to put it *somewhere*, and the core books were already published.
Is the book's title the problem? Just change it, but what lies inside doesn't need to change.

Really, do not relativize and banalize such serious real-world issues by linking it to pretty much innocent fan stuff. I absolutely Hate when people banalize serious problems by talking about trivial oddities...
 

Igwilly

First Post
Thanks to globalization, we can buy Asian style RPGs from Asians themselves.

Tenra Bansho Zero does to Japanese myth what D&D does to European myth
http://tenra-rpg.com/
Golden Sky Stories is from Japan and there's a Kickstarter happening for it RIGHT NOW!!! for spalt though
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nekoewen/golden-sky-stories-twilight-tales?ref=profile_created
The Maid RPG also exists! It's the first RPG ever to be translated from Japanese to English!
http://maidrpg.com/
There's also Double Cross, which is made by Japanese people but isn't about ninjas and stuff like that...
http://ver-blue-amusement.com/index.html

Thank you.
Something new like being able to cut through a tank!

Yeah, baby!
Only if you master both Ki and Kenjutsu, my pupil.
 



Drew Melbourne

First Post
I don’t think the problem is the mish-mashiness. As other folks have pointed out, most fantasy is a mish-mash. The real problems are:

1) the name; it’s like putting out a game called “Colored People Adventures”
2) the lack of involvement of Asians or Asian-Americans in crafting the material
3) the ham-fistedness of the mish-mash (largely because of 2) in which certain historical/real world elements are brought in too literally, are based on offensive stereotypes, or are fetishized
4) as a stand-alone setting marketed primarily to white people, the dynamic is “buy this setting so you can pretend to be Asian” as opposed to “we want everyone to play our game and everyone can be anything”

I think the thing to stress is: It’s possible for things to be problematic without being intentionally racist. Criticizing things is not the same as condemning them or the people who like them. Take other people’s concerns seriously, particularly when you’re operating off of positions you’ve held without questioning for years or decades. And if you’re telling someone that the thing they like is racist or awful, maybe back off slightly, examine your word choice and intentions and figure out if there’s a more nuanced way to make your point that will help everybody find common ground.

In the end, there will still be disagreements and that’s okay too. No group, whether we’re talking Asian-Americans or D&D Players or Asian-American D&D Players, is a monolith.
 


Mercule

Adventurer
If WotC wants to see Muslims playing D&D, then it must be easy to opt out of polytheism.
The same could be said for strong (conservative? orthodox?) Christians. There just isn't much room for other gods -- or truly benevolent spiritual beings representing themselves as gods -- in the Christian world view. I imagine that most Christians do what I do which is either wall it off as telling stories that may have "liberties" or assuming there's a layer of abstraction in there where there is some doctrine that points to a higher God, but can be ignored during play the same way John McClane's church attendance was irrelevant to his time in LA.

For anyone who cared enough, though, it's been pretty simple to do home brew that allowed for true monotheism -- in either the Christian or Muslim vein -- since 1E. The stay-at-home priests are NPCs. The Clerics are adventurers and can easily be "front line" priests of either religion. Paladins are more born than made. Even in 5E, the different domains could be seen as different focuses, like you'd find in Templars vs Hospitaliers -- I'm pretty sure there are similar sub-groups in Islam, but I won't try to name them and expose my ignorance. For the most part, both "conservative" groups run into the same issue: the default assumptions are pretty polytheistic.

For the ultra-conservative/fundamental branches, the simple existence of magic is probably a non-starter and the entire argument is moot and always will be. Just like reading Harry Potter or Percy Jackson.
 

Igwilly

First Post
The same could be said for strong (conservative? orthodox?) Christians. There just isn't much room for other gods -- or truly benevolent spiritual beings representing themselves as gods -- in the Christian world view. I imagine that most Christians do what I do which is either wall it off as telling stories that may have "liberties" or assuming there's a layer of abstraction in there where there is some doctrine that points to a higher God, but can be ignored during play the same way John McClane's church attendance was irrelevant to his time in LA.

For anyone who cared enough, though, it's been pretty simple to do home brew that allowed for true monotheism -- in either the Christian or Muslim vein -- since 1E. The stay-at-home priests are NPCs. The Clerics are adventurers and can easily be "front line" priests of either religion. Paladins are more born than made. Even in 5E, the different domains could be seen as different focuses, like you'd find in Templars vs Hospitaliers -- I'm pretty sure there are similar sub-groups in Islam, but I won't try to name them and expose my ignorance. For the most part, both "conservative" groups run into the same issue: the default assumptions are pretty polytheistic.

For the ultra-conservative/fundamental branches, the simple existence of magic is probably a non-starter and the entire argument is moot and always will be. Just like reading Harry Potter or Percy Jackson.

Well, it's a make-believe world. "Liberties" are pretty acceptable. And yes, it is pretty easy to make monotheistic religious systems; just like any kind of religious system, really.

However, for some reason, no matter which religion you are part of, armor and maces are a mandatory part of the spiritual training hahahahahahahahahahahaha XD

Edit: Actually, as a strong and conservative? (depends on what you mean by that word) Christian, I'm pretty cool with most uses about my religion. Honestly, if you flat out say that you changed things and this is not meant as a precise depiction of it, you pretty much gave yourself liberty to do a lot of stuff.
Alas, anyway, if I don't like it, I just ignore it. A fellow poster once said: "apathy kills faster than hate".
 
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Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
The same could be said for strong (conservative? orthodox?) Christians. There just isn't much room for other gods -- or truly benevolent spiritual beings representing themselves as gods -- in the Christian world view.
When I have felt the need to use D&D as an intro to delivering myself of a lecture on Apologetics,* I point out how the attributes of the most-talked-about Good Gods match up very well with the attributes of Jehovah. (The converse is also true: Evil Gods are not like Jehovah.)

* which has not happened often, fortunately for my (captive) audience
 

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